(Paige is taking a break this week, so Hunter is writing the review!)
It is no secret that the publishing industry in this country churns out an excessive amount of pointless dribble, and it is little wonder that so many people have recently all but abandoned books. However, every so often, a book comes along that is so pleasurable, so sentence-for-sentence perfectly written, that it reignites a dwindling belief in the power of literature; a book that simply must be shared with others. A Good American is just such a book.
This multigenerational, American saga begins, as nearly all American sagas begin, on foreign soil. In the opening pages, during the early years of the previous century, we find Frederick Meisenheimer hiding behind a bush in a municipal garden in Hanover, Germany waiting to ambush a girl whom he has never met with an aria. Music will play an important role throughout the book, becoming a character itself during the course of the story. Puccini’s “Che gelida manina” from the composer’s opera, La Bohéme does the trick, and Frederick and Jette are soon married, despite parental objections. Before long the newlyweds find themselves aboard the ship Copernicus, in route to America and the couple’s new life, but by mistake end up not in New York, but New Orleans. But this is no problem. After all, “They’re both new.”
They settle in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri, finding comfort in the town’s large German population. There, they open a restaurant, serving a culinary mix of German and Creole food, and play host to a wide variety of musical entertainment, from opera to Dixieland jazz. Their patriotism is soon tested however with President Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany and the terror of World War I that was to come. Which side should the new immigrants support? Jette misses her home dearly and is disgusted by the whole war fury that has gripped the nation, but Frederick, who only wants to look to the future, supports his new country, even going so far as joining the U.S. army and going off to fight.
The magic of music continues its defining role in the family’s succeeding generations. Frederick and Jette’s son, Joseph, courts his wife with arias and will continue running the restaurant, although with a more American flare than his parents would perhaps be comfortable with. In due time, Joseph’s sons, including James, the novel’s narrator, form a barbershop quartet and together carry the town’s residents through weddings and bar mitzvahs and funerals with their angelic harmony.
George intersperses his novel with a cast of eccentric characters, including a bicycle-riding dwarf attorney, a young teenager with a genetic disorder that leaves him with the body of a giant, a music teacher who seduces not only her students but the whole town, and a preacher who is certain he has witnessed the return of Christ in the form of a young man standing on a log. Alongside these peculiar individuals, the books of the great comic master P.G. Wodehouse play a central theme in James’ life and education as a writer. (One can hope that A Good American will introduce at least a few readers to Wodehouse.) In George’s capable hands, these secondary characters never take away from the story. Instead, each one adds their own flavor, complimenting the novel as a whole; the perfect amount of seasoning.
Alex George immigrated to America in 2003 from England, where he studied at Oxford University and spent eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris. He has published four previous novels, all published in Europe. The Times of London named George one of Britain’s top ten “thirty-something” novelists. He now lives in Columbia, Missouri where he runs his own law firm.
In A Good American, Alex George has given us an inspirational and delightful story. It is, throughout, a wonderful read. The book’s editor, Amy Einhorn, the woman behind the successes of Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress and Kathryn Stockett’s runaway best-seller The Help, among others, has quite possibly outdone herself with her discovery of Mr. George.
It is nothing short of a cognitive pleasure to come across writing such as George’s. His talent for choosing the right word or phrase is refreshing. Page after page in The Good American, the reader is awestruck with such linguistic treasures as: “Polk felt the fingers of God brush lightly over his soul.” And one more, when the United States is caught up in anti-German frenzy in the weeks prior to the First World War, we read, “In St. Louis, a man defended Germany in an argument, and a furious mob stripped him naked and dragged him through the streets. Then they lynched him. The people of Beatrice shuddered and hung out another American flag.”
It is difficult to read A Good American without personally relating at least a few scenes or characters to your own life. That, after all, is what great literature is; it speaks to all of us. That is what George has done in his latest novel. Some books simply must have a place at the top of one’s ‘need-to-read’ list; A Good American is deserving of such a place.